Konrad Bongard, freelance journalist for Pardon Applications of Canada, explores society’s fascination for crime films, and suggests why they resonate with their audience.
If one surveys the history of cinema, it’s easy to see that films about criminals are immensely popular. From Scarface (both the Howard Hawks & Brian De Palma versions) to The Godfather, from Goodfellas to Pulp Fiction, a disproportionate number of critically and commercially successful films seem to be a about crime. This seems to raise the question: why are crime films so popular?
The phenomena is not restricted to North America. Arguably the most acclaimed South American film of the 2000s, City of God, is about drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro, and the Hong Kong film industry has for nearly three decades churned out crime films that range from the obscenely commercial (John Woo’s work) to artsy (the meditative works of Wong Kar-Wai), with generally successful results.
Let’s take The Godfather as a case study.
Everyone remembers the scene at the beginning of The Godfather where Vito Corleone, portrayed by the great Marlon Brando (who apparently stuffed cotton balls in his cheeks for his audition to achieve the puffed-cheek look he wore in the film) converses with the lowly mortician whose come to see him on his daughter’s wedding day. The mortician, who asks Don Corleone to avenge the two men who viciously beat his daughter after she resisted their attempts to assault her, is at first refused by Don Corleone, who treats the mortician’s weariness of interacting with him in the past a sign of disrespect. We should pay attention here to what he says when he at first refuses him: “You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you; and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend of me.”
What makes this such an effective scene is that, with a single gesture, it portrays the class dynamic which is so central to the appeal of crime films. Bonasera the mortician sought to “integrate” into American society, and as a result of this avoided Don Corleone, who he associated with the most violent and backward tendencies of the Southern Italy he came from. But the ideal of America that Bonasera aspires to be part of is revealed, in the end, to be little more than a farce: one where savage would-be rapists such as the men who assailed his daughter are able to walk free because of their social status.
The achievement of The Godfather is that it shows how organized crime flourishes as an alternative form of society for persons and groups that are excluded from the general prosperity (in this case, Italian immigrants) — a message underlined later in the film, when after Kay states that in contrast to the mafia, “Presidents and senators don’t have men killed”, to which a stony Al Pacino replies: “Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?”.
Doubtless these lines of dialogue would’ve resonated with American audiences in 1972, traumatized by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.
Certainly, The Godfather’s director, Francis Ford Coppola, was aware of this message. He supposedly wavered over whether to direct the film initially because he didn’t want to vilify Italians, but only accepted it when he realized he could use the Mafia as “a metaphor for America and capitalism.”
This is precisely why crime films are so popular. They allow us, as an audience, to dramatize our own desire to “break out” of the structures of liberal-democratic society and its accompanying hypocrisies.
The criminal justice system is certainly a part of this. Even its general premise — that all individuals are equal in the eyes of the law — greatly neglects to take account of class difference (you’re much more likely to engage in criminal acts if you were raised on an aboriginal reserve, where crime is exponentially higher), a political stance in of itself.
This is not to suggest that people can’t make choices for themselves. We all have, at the very least, a margin of freedom. But the justice system cannot truly be just until society itself is, for the same reason that it would be unfair to conduct a spelling bee when half of the kids involved haven’t been taught to read by no choice of their own. It would be impossible to say that the kids who haven’t been taught to read have no talent because their potential hasn’t been remotely cultivated.
In the future, it will be important for Canada to be “tough on crime”. But we have to be tough on the causes of crime, too.
Konrad Bongard is a freelance journalist for Pardon Applications of Canada, the nationwide processing firm for Canadian Pardon (Record Suspension) & U.S. Entry Waiver applications. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Pardon Applications of Canada.